The weekly spin: Why Paul Sherwen’s death hurts

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I was just out the door to take the dog for a hike when I got the news that Paul Sherwen had died in his sleep Sunday, at age 62. It stopped me in my tracks. And as I tried to process emotions such as shock, and sadness, the feeling I kept coming back to was loss.

There are the obvious reasons to feel loss. Sherwen was young. His death was sudden and unexpected; the cause of death has been ruled as heart failure. He leaves behind a wife, Katherine, and two children, his son Alexander and daughter Margaux.

I knew Paul Sherwen, but I can’t claim I knew him well. We saw each other at bike races a few times a year. We followed each other on Twitter. We’d shared stories over beers a few times over the last 15 years, but our interactions were usually spent standing around in some hotel lobby or press area or teams presentation, lanyards around our necks.

My sense of loss isn’t unique, but like many in our extended cycling family, it feels personal. It’s not about the loss of a professional acquaintance, but rather the loss of someone I felt, right or wrong, that I understood. And liked.

Upon reading the news, someone on Twitter wrote to me that she felt as though a dear friend had passed. Over the past 24 hours I’ve seen hundreds of comments along those lines. And that’s understandable, given the countless hours, across the years, that Sherwen spent in our collective ears.

Paul Sherwen (La Redoute) at the 1984 Ronde van Vlaanderen.

There’s nothing shameful about grieving celebrity deaths, a common, modern experience that has been well documented in recent years after the deaths of Robin Williams, David Bowie, and Prince, to name a few. And while Paul Sherwen was not a celebrity on the same scale as an Academy Award-winning actor or a celebrated musician, within the English-speaking cycling universe he was arguably as well known as anyone alive. His commentary reached generations of audiences in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.

The story of Paul Sherwen’s loss is not one about celebrity, it’s one about accessibility. He was a commentator — a communicator. His skill was to share insight into the vast international sport of bicycle racing, a sport rooted in foreign soil and language to English speakers, a cycling community built around a shared passion. That’s not an easy job, and not everyone who has tried their hand at cycling commentary has succeeded. But Sherwen’s style — warm, humorous, enthusiastic — welcomed all comers.

Thirteen years his senior, Sherwen’s partner Phil Liggett may be regarded as the “voice of cycling,” but Sherwen complemented him with a calming, affable presence and inside-the-peloton knowledge that was an integral part of the broadcast. Liggett may have been the emcee of the party, but Sherwen was the guy who walked you around and introduced you to everyone. You needn’t have ever met Sherwen to feel like you knew him.

Together, they were known simply as “Phil and Paul,” arguably the most famous commentating duo in the sport’s history, and certainly the longest lasting, covering the sport together for 33 years — longer than most marriages. If you’re a pro cycling fan and you speak English, odds are good your introduction to the Tour de France included Sherwen and Liggett walking you through the intricacies of our complicated, beautiful sport.

Simply put, Paul Sherwen served as a conduit between cycling fans and their shared passion. And on Sunday, that particular, unique conduit closed.

A life in cycling — and Africa

Paul Sherwen was born in Lancashire, England, in 1956. He was raised in Africa, in Uganda as a young boy — his father managed a fertilizer and cotton insecticide factory in Tororo  — and in Kenya as a teenager. Prior to his racing career, Sherwen took an engineering degree at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

During a pro career that spanned from 1978 to 1987, Sherwen started seven Tours de France, and finished five of them. He spent six seasons in the La Redoute jersey, sponsored by a French mail-order company, and his final two seasons wearing the Raleigh logo, sponsored by the British bike brand.

Paul Sherwen (La Redoute) at the 1985 Amstel Gold Race. Photo: Cor Vos.

A domestique throughout his career, Sherwen only had a handful of victories, but he did win a stage of the 1983 Four Days of Dunkirk, finishing second overall, and he was the British national champion in 1987, his final season. He twice finished in the top 15 at Monuments, at Milan-San Remo in 1980, and Paris-Roubaix in 1984. His nickname, “Climber,” was dubbed in jest, as he famously struggled in the mountains. He made a name for himself by just staying within the time cut at the Tour de France, which he did on two occasions. His highest Tour de France result, 70th overall, came in 1978, his Tour debut.

At the 1985 Tour, Sherwen crashed in the opening kilometres of a Pyrenean stage and spent the day alone while eventual Tour winner Bernard Hinault set the pace at the front. Accompanied only by a moto Gendarme, he rode solo for six hours across six mountains, finishing an hour behind the stage winner, and 23 minutes behind the time cut. However the race jury reinstated him and allowed him to continue. He went on to finish the Tour, though it would be his last.

Prior to his full-time commentary career, Sherwen worked in team management at Raleigh-Banana, and then as press officer for the American Motorola team run by Jim Ochowicz. It was there he first met Lance Armstrong, whose reign of seven Tour de France wins ran parallel to Sherwen’s prime years behind the microphone. Sherwen was Motorola’s press officer at the 1995 Tour when Motorola’s Fabio Casartelli died on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet, in the Pyrenees. Three days later, Armstrong soloed to a stage victory, arms pointed to the sky.

Stephen Swart (Motorola) with Paul Sherwen and Hennie Kuiper.

Sherwen first linked up with Liggett in 1986, while he was still racing; he cleared his calendar during July to commentate on the Tour de France rather than participate. It would be a decision that would pay dividends for the rest of his life. The Tour de France also led Sherwen to meet his wife, Katherine; she worked for the American broadcaster ABC, on assignment at the Tour.

And though he was British, Sherwen’s ties to Africa were deep. He and Katherine moved to Uganda in 1996 when they invested in Busitema Mining Cie, a gold-mining venture in Eastern Uganda. Among those who also invested in a gold mine Sherwen managed were longtime American friends Ron Kiefel, Mike Plant, Ochowicz, and Armstrong.

Sherwen’s African interests weren’t purely financial. He spoke fluent Swahili. He helped create Paul’s Peloton, which brought bicycles to Africa, and he advocated for African wildlife as a chairman of the Ugandan Conservation Foundation and supporter of the Helping Rhinos initiative. He was also the founding member of the Uganda Chamber of Mines and Petroleum and served as a Member of the Board of Trustees.

Sherwen’s work outside of cycling included Kara-Tunga, Karamoja Arts & Tours, a social tour operator in the untouched Karamoja region of Uganda.

At the time of his death, Sherwen had just gotten approval from the village of Karamoja, in northeastern Uganda, to base his cycling tour center there. His final tweet, just two days before he died, was about Rwanda’s Africa Rising Cycling team, crediting Americans Tom Ritchey and Jock Boyer for the work they’ve done to bring Africans into the pro peloton.

A British ex-pat living Uganda, Sherwen was a perennial globetrotter, traveling annually from Africa to Australia, Europe, the United States and beyond. This past July was his 40th Tour de France — seven trips around the hexagon as a competitor, followed by 33 as a commentator. Roughly two-thirds of Paul Sherwen’s life included Julys spent in France.

A voice of summers past and present

I first started following professional cycling right around the turn of the century, after Lance Armstrong’s first Tour victory in 1999. Back then, in the US, pro races were shown on the Outdoor Life Network, which ultimately became Versus, and then NBC Sports Network. And all along, Liggett and Sherwen have provided race commentary. It’s no exaggeration to say that for as long as I’ve followed professional cycling, Paul Sherwen has been in my ear. I’ve never watched a US broadcast of the Tour without hearing his voice, and I’m not alone.

I first met Sherwen in 2004, at the Tour de Langkawi. There weren’t many English-speaking journalists at the race, and we were all staying in the same race hotels, so there were frequent after-dinner gatherings that involved cold beers and warmed-over race stories. It was during that week in Malaysia that we received news that Marco Pantani had died, at the age of 34. I can’t recall much about what Sherwen had to say about it; my memory is that though we looked to him for an explanation, he was left speechless. It felt as though it was too much, too complicated, too personal.

Over the years I got to know Sherwen in a very casual sense of the word. From 2006 through 2011 I covered the Tour de France from start to finish, and my experience of hearing him through the TV set became experiences of chatting with him in person at the TV compound, or race paddock, or press buffet, or at the porta-potties. I recall a quality conversation with him on the overnight ferry ride from Corsica to Nice at the 2013 Tour, and more recently in Sacramento, at the team presentation of the 2017 Amgen Tour of California.

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the 2007 Tour de Langkawi.

On the road, Sherwen and Liggett traveled as a pair. They spent their evenings driving to the finish of the following day’s stage, eliminating any possibility of a hold up interfering with their broadcast. It was always Sherwen behind the wheel of their rental car, Liggett handling navigation, their backseat full of dry cleaning.

As I wrote on Twitter, within the pro cycling world there are people you see at the races that give you a nod, and there are people that make time to stop, say hello, and ask how you’re doing. Sherwen was the latter, 100% of the time, without fail. He looked you in the eye. He asked questions, and seemed genuinely interested in your answers. He was generous with his time, as Robbie McEwen so accurately put it. And he always found a way to find the humor in a situation, with that trademark wry smile on his face.

Whenever a member of the cycling community passes away, there is sadness. But Sherwen’s death exemplifies to me that there is perhaps no role quite like that of a race commentator. In pro cycling, insight into the athletes and team directors is often limited to pre- and post-race interviews and written text, and usually based around performances.

By contrast, a race commentator is in your ear, sometimes day in, day out, for three weeks in July. The cycling audience cheers for riders, but in a perfect world they feel like they know a race commentator. Sherwen wasn’t just an affable former pro; for many he was a friend. A guide. An ally. A voice of summers past and present. A voice of nostalgia and insight.

It’s hard to know if Sherwen realized how big his following was — how many people he’d reached. “I’ve never seen such an outpouring,” Liggett told the Wall Street Journal today. “I’m convinced Paul had no idea how much he was loved. But the answer is clear today.”

I last spoke with Sherwen at the Colorado Classic in August. He seemed to love being in Colorado, with ties to Colorado-based riders from the Motorola team such as Andy Hampsten and Bob Roll, the latter a TV commentary colleague for over a decade.

During that trip, Sherwen visited with former Coors Classic race director Michael Aisner, who took him for a surprise visit to see Davis Phinney. Phinney, who has Parkinson’s disease, was undergoing therapy when they arrived at his home in Boulder.

“I leaned in first, and Davis smiled, and then over the top came Paul, and Davis just exploded,” Aisner said. “He immediately stopped what he was doing, and gave Paul the longest, dearest hug. The conversation that ensued, the time they spent together was one of most endearing things I’ve ever observed between two people. And that’s Paul Sherwen.”

Davis Phinney with Paul Sherwen in August 2018. “I loved Paul,” Phinney said. “Such a huge void has opened, that can never be filled. What a remarkable man and friend.”

Aisner, whose unconventional life after organizing the Coors Classic has included a longtime friendship with Jane Goodall, a day spent in a recording studio with Michael Jackson, and trips around the globe chasing solar eclipses, has a home “filled with artifacts from all over the world.”

“Paul walked through my house looking at each and every thing, commenting, asking questions, providing narrative,” Aisner said. “I learned more from him during his visit than anyone who’s ever come through this house. I think that gives you great insight into Paul Sherwen. His curiosity — the way he printed knowledge in his head, and recalled it like few other people I know — it’s what made him so special.”

In a recent email to Aisner, Sherwen commented about the August death of former cycling commentator Brian Drebber, who died at age 68 from injuries sustained after a motorcycle collision with a deer.

“Very sad news,” Sherwen wrote. “You never know what’s around the corner in this life.”

Paul Sherwen’s job, for more than half his life, was to tell cycling fans what was happening, and what was coming around the corner. He’s exited through that corner now, leaving the rest of us behind — albeit with a fuller understanding of what we’ve seen.

Paul Sherwen: June 7, 1956 – December 2, 2018.

The weekly spin is a column from our Editor at Large offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.

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